~~Chogyam Trungpa and the ko0l kids ~~

The hippies of the 70’s aren’t much different from the hipsters of today. Popular/trending waves during the two decades in America (1970-1980 and 2005-2015) include the use of “mind-expanding drugs”, vegetarian food diets, and a rise in equal rights movements. While hippies desired “a world of peace and love [in which] their open-mindedness…created a fertile ground for the arrival of Buddhism” (4), modern day hipsters enjoy pretending not to care and rejecting mainstream ideas. A thought experiment: how effective would the same approaches that Chogyam Trungpa used to educate the West on Tibetan Buddhism throughout the 70’s be on hipsters today? Trungpa took a few different approaches to educate laypeople during his time in the West, which included making genuine connections or provoking them in order to expose the truth.

Trungpa’s casual method of sharing Buddhism was a much more personal approach. He was said to wear “jeans and sometimes a rather loud cowboy shirt left unbuttoned at the top,” (5) and while staying at a person’s home, he “washed the dishes and helped with the household chores,” (7). By abandoning his prestige in Tibet and connecting directly with people, he was able to establish a direct relationship with the person. This method seems timeless, other than his dated fashion choices, as Trungpa could establish a rapport and genuinely connect with whomever he was educating. But how seriously could you take a cowboy’s life advice? Perhaps in the modern day, Trungpa would be wearing a flannel and cooking quinoa with vegetables at the person’s home.

Conversely, Trungpa would also provoke his audiences. To begin with, Trungpa believed that “the purpose of the spiritual path is not, as young people then imagined, to attain some ethereal existence in which the passions of life are replaced with a superior detachment, but is instead a way of being fully human” (6). In order to call attention to this, at larger lectures, “some of the audience would be furious and demand a refund [because] Chogyam Trungpa would often arrive very late or speak only for a few minutes…People wanted answers, but Chogyam Trungpa refused to cater to their expectations. His purpose was to unravel the tangle of beliefs in which they had ensnared themselves. He thus exposed as purely artificial the hidden foundation on which most people’s experience is based” (9). By arriving late or saying little, Trungpa was intentionally toying with the audience’s expectations, and in doing so; he reveals to them that they are not living the “complete experience” (6). While this method was effective in some way to the people at the time, this might not be effective with people today. The culture of hipster-dom hides behind a veil of apathy and if Buddhism is trending enough to bring crowds of people for a single lecture, it runs the risk of being too mainstream.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of Chogyam Trungpa’s teaching methods depends best on your audience reception, hippie, hipster, or not.

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Tantra and the Self

Something that has interested me throughout our study of Tibetan Buddhism is the differing view of the self. While some of the previous philosophers and scholars that we have read have disagreed on some of the more minute and complex details, there is a general assumption that the interconnectedness of people and things intrinsically implies emptiness. Following this train of thought, there cannot be a concept of individual people or of the self as something completely independent from other phenomena.
This is why I’ve had a hard time understanding certain concepts in the practice of tantra in the larger concepts of Buddhism. For example, how could the worship of Virupa, someone whose actions were often cruel and odd, fit into the larger teaching of compassion? How could imagining oneself as a deity, an action that seems to take a lot of hubris to the untrained eye, go along with emptiness and lack of self?
I think this is an example of the way that tantra does not entirely reject an extreme, but rather uses it for beneficial purposes. For example, while the fleeting ups and downs of emotional happiness keep an individual in samsara, tantra takes advantage of overall bliss in order to reach enlightenment. In fact, “one actualizes progressively deeper understanding of the nature of reality through experiencing pleasurable cognitions, gaining control over physical and mental energies, and conjoining blissful consciousnesses with realization of the nature of reality” (Powers 261). Tantra thus harnesses these phenomena to attain enlightenment, rather than encourage followers to completely reject them.
So, how does this apply to imagining oneself as a deity? My first impression of the practice was that it was prideful and almost disrespectful. But it is important to understand that visualization is seen as something that will help one become familiar to that enlightened state of being. Therefore, when visualizing oneself as a deity, one is actually meditating on that deity’s higher sense of emptiness. The result is a paradox: by seeing oneself as an individual higher above ordinary beings, one actually realizes the lack of differentiation. That is actually the only difference between an ordinary being and a buddha: “that the minds of ordinary beings are plagued by deluded thoughts which result from mental afflictions… When ordinary beings remove the afflictions and perfect wisdom and compassion, they become buddhas” (Powers 272). In this way, a practice that seems odd or prideful at first actually greatly aids an individual on their way to compassion and enlightenment.
These paradoxes are what makes tantra so interesting. With this in mind, I can see why it is considered more dangerous than other practices of Buddhism. It seems as if misinterpreting the teachings and its many complexities can be fairly detrimental to the individual’s journey to enlightenment. No wonder it is something highly guarded and regulated.

Works Cited
Powers, John. “Tantra.” Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, N.Y., USA: Snow Lion Publications, 1995.

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Was Virupa arrogant or doing what needed to be done?

Early on we learned that Buddha was inspired to share with others what he had learned during his awakening – how suffering was the “fundamental problem of life” and how our suffering could end with an understanding of the four noble truths (Gethin, 1998).  Gethin (1998) notes how historians generally believe that the Buddha possessed a charismatic personality and that he was likely a genius (p. 63).  One might guess that the Buddha’s charm and charisma is what convinced many, if not all, of his followers to follow him.  As Gethin (1998) explains, “That such an individual might well have had a certain success in convincing others of the soundness of his understanding of the nature of the world … does not seem to me historically implausible” (p. 63).  When I imagine the Buddha traveling around and offering his insight, I imagine an empathic, intelligent man, clearly motivated by his desire to end the suffering of others.

Fast-forward a few centuries later, and we meet the alcoholic, arrogant, and rather heartless, Virupa.  Like the Buddha, Virupa came from a royal family and he too left the comforts of home to follow his Buddhist calling.  But, Virupa seems to revel in his ability to exert power over others, almost seeming to become sidetracked from any altruistic motivations he may have started with.  Yet, in “Freeing the Heart and Mind,” credit is given to Virupa for helping others as it states: “Through his performance of extraordinary physical, verbal, and mental activities, he benefitted an immense number of sentient beings, all of whom are counted as his disciples (p. 59).  So perhaps, even though many of his actions were violent, they still resulted in ending the suffering of others, so it is okay that he went about things the way he did.

Initially, I was somewhat irritated by Virupa’s behavior; I prefer the more humble nature of the Buddha to Virupa’s show-off-y style.  But then one of our classmates brought up the fact that many religious stories are rather grandiose and over-the-top.  This made me consider that perhaps some of the stories about Virupa have been exaggerated over the years.  Then I thought about how even if the stories are true, perhaps Virupa needed to be a little bit eccentric and frightening in order to convince his followers to even follow him.  After all, it cannot be any easy thing to convince someone that their long-standing religious beliefs are in fact, incorrect.  We know that Hindu’s believe in Atman or a real self, something that Buddhists do not.  Perhaps Virupa understood that the only way to convince Hindu’s to follow Buddhism was to scare them into it.

I still have ambivalent feelings toward Virupa, but I can see why he behaved the way he did.  I am not sure he would have been effective if he had used a “softer” approach.  Still, I think he enjoyed indulging his non-existent ego at times!


Gethin, R. (1998). The foundations of Buddhism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Gyaltsen, K. K. & Chodron, A. K. (Eds.). (2011). Freeing the heart and mind. Boston, MA:         Wisdom Publications.

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Perception and Virupa

The fact that Dharmapala changed his name to Virupa, (which means ugly), could be viewed as a demonstration of his humility. Or this very same act of changing his name could be viewed as shameful, an accurate and literal name, depicting Virupa’s harmful nature. Depending on the way one chooses to see this, the quality of their experience will be affected. For example, if one chooses to see Virupa’s name change as an act of humility they will have a positive experience towards him and good feelings will arise as a result. Where as, if one see’s his name as an accurate and literal depiction of his character, they will have a negative experience and bad feelings will arise as a result.
I think that the fact that Virupa’s actions can be explained as positive and demonstrative of his virtue, and can simultaneously be explained as negative and demonstrative of his immorality- is indicative of the significance perception has on one’s feelings about others. Furthermore the way one feels about others usually affects the quality of how one is feeling. In my post I would like to describe some of the acts Virupa made and then analyze them, demonstrating the significant role of perception in one’s experience.
One time Virupa wanted to cross the Ganges river without touching the water, so he asked a sailor if the sailor could sail him across the river in his boat. The sailer said yes, but also asked Virupa what he would be getting in return as a boat fare. Virupa said to him that he would  give him the river as his fare. Virupa then pointed at the river with a scary mudra and the flow of the river reversed direction. Many people who lived on the banks of the river felt like they were put in danger by the rivers reverse of flow. The sailor told the people that Virupa was the one that caused the river to reverse direction; so the people began bringing offerings to Virupa requesting that he let the river flow in its natural way. Virupa gave all of these offerings to the sailor saying that the offerings were his fare.
One could view Virupa’s actions regarding the river and the people that inhabit it’s shores as positive or as negative. In the end, the sailor viewed Virupa’s demonstration of power as only achievable by a great master. He threw himself at Virupa’s feet, saying that he didn’t want any of the offerings, and that now all he wanted to do was become his follower. Virupa accepted the sailors request and returned all the offerings back to the people. Based on this story one could argue that Virupa was a nice, generous and compassionate person because he gave back all of the offerings, and allowed the sailor to be his student.
On the other hand, one could say that Virupa’s actions were a cruel demonstration of his power. He tortured families on the bank of the river by reversing its direction and causing them fright, and that this is no way for a master to use his power. Therefore his power is worthless and he is not worthy of followers.
Depending on the perceptions of those affected by Virupa, they have either obtained a new blessed teacher or a new worst enemy, causing them to feel either very sad or very happy. This is the significance of perception in relation to Virupa.

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Virupa’s Truth

i35Recognized as “the highest abbot among all…scholars,” Virupa was an acclaimed yogi who lived in seventh- and eighth-century India (Trizin 20, 23). Virupa was known as an important master of the Sakya linage, but his lifestyle and teachings were, at times, met with criticism and bewilderment (Trizin 20). Although Virupa’s actions were considered unethical or unconventional, we can make sense of his actions by viewing them through the lenses of the Two Truths.

Virupa understood the uncontaminated reality through the Ultimate Truth, which led him to “perceive things as they really are” and to be “free [from] the latent potentials for ignorance” (Garfield 236). After experiencing self-doubt and ominous visions, Virupa achieved the sixth level of realization and became “a perfectly and fully enlightened buddha” (Trizin 22). Given his enlightenment and newfound perception of the world, Virupa did not “see objects that were seen by those affected by the cataracts of ignorance,” and consequently, acted in ways that were beyond the comprehension of non-enlightened individuals (Garfield 236). Following his spiritual enlightenment, “Virupa wore [flowers] around his head” and “went to bars and houses of prostitution, astonishing everyone by his behavior” (Trizin 23). Because of his actions, the Sangha attempted to expel him from the monastic compound (Trizin 23). But once Virupa parted the sacred Ganges River, many members of the Sangha realized that “Virupa had achieved high attainment” and apologized for their actions (Trizin 24). Because of Virupa’s attainment of the Ultimate Truth and its incomprehension by non-enlightened beings, many individuals could not conceive the spiritual merit let alone the rationale behind Virupa’s actions.

Ordinary people viewed reality through the Conventional Truth, and therefore, perceived Virupa’s actions as unconventional. According to the Life Story of Mahashiddah Virupa, “[Virupa] continued to mediate on his realization and remained in his room. Some people noticed him bringing meat and liquor…some perceived him to be sitting with eight burning oil lamps” (Trizin 23). The contradictions show that non-enlightened individuals failed to see reality as it truly is. Under the conventional truth, one’s ignorance “fabricates the essential existence of phenomena that do not inherently exist” (Garfield 228). Consequently, the world that non-enlightened beings see is one that is fixed on their mind’s projections (ignorance), not true reality – leading many people, at times, to perceive one event/thing differently (Garfield 229). Unlike Virupa who was able to escape from the ignorance of the Conventional Truth, many individuals were subject to illusions that they perceived to be truly and ultimately existent (Garfield 231).

Virupa’s actions and their reception by non-enlightened beings show that the perception of reality as understood by an individual was dependent on the perspective with which one viewed the world. By realizing the Ultimate Truth, Virupa no longer perceived nature by a conventional cognitive agent and consequentially acted in ways that were socially unacceptable by society (Garfield 233). The inability of non-enlightened beings to perceive the Ultimate Truth prevented them from initially acknowledging – let alone understanding – the compassion behind Virupa’s perceived vulgar actions.

Works Cited

Garfield, Jay L. “Understanding the Two Truths.” Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. 228-229, 231, 233, 236. Print.

Trizin, Sakya. “The Life Story of Mahasiddha Virupa.” Freeing the Heart and Mind: Introduction to the Buddhist Path. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2011. 20, 22-24. Print.

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Tantra & the Two Truths

The readings on Tantra seem particularly antithetical to what we have learned so far, particularly the idea that “the problem lies not in desire per se, but rather in a misdirection of the energy of desire towards objects that lead to suffering and bondange” (Powers, 259). Everything else we have discussed has talked about all desire–even the desire to reach Buddhahood–as fundamentally the same at attachment, which is unhelpful on the path. Looking over past readings, however, it is helpful to use phenomenological approach to the two natures and particularly the idea of non-duality (instead of emptiness) in trying to understand how Tantra fits with other parts of Buddhism.

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about emptiness, this idea that nothing is truly existent. As Duckworth notes, however, that is not always the best way to understand ultimate reality. In a phenomenological understanding of the two truths, ultimate understanding is “the unity of appearance and emptiness not bifurcated into a dichotomous structure” (521). Emptiness requires us to break objects into distinct parts, the real and the empty. In order to become a Buddha, we must completely leave this way of understanding because “…the false presumption of duality cannot be negated by this kind of reason alone, but involves a restructuring, to destructuring, of the way of relating to the lived-world, in which duality no longer structures experience” (524). So, when we talk about not being able to see conventional and ultimate reality at the same time, what we really mean is not really recognizing them as two separate things, even though the idea that they can’t exist at the same time would seem to imply a distinction. It’s a completely different plane of understanding, in which there are no objects to exist or not exist.

When focusing primarily on this understanding of ultimate truth, tantric meditation practices make more sense. Tantra works because, instead of focusing on releasing attachment from essentially empty objects, it focuses on the idea that “nothing in itself is pure or impure, good or bad, mundane or transcendent; things only appear to us in these way because of preconceived ideas” (Powers 261) and gets rid of constructions of duality altogether. Thinking about it in terms of removing one’s conceptions of duality makes it possible to “redirect this energy [of desire]… so that desire itself becomes a means to overcome desire” (Powers 260). This idea does not make sense when your end result is the nonexistence of desire and attachment, but it is useful when you seek the lack of a concept of desire in the first place. This also translates to the idea of visualizing oneself as a buddha because, from the standpoint of nonduality, “there is no fundamental difference between ordinary beings and fully awakened buddhas” (Powers 272).

While I struggle to understand Tantra in the context of emptiness, its usefulness for the end of dualistic thinking is clear. Tantra is compatible with and works towards a phenomenological understanding of ultimate truth.

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Thoughts on Tantra

As I began to read the Tantra chapter of John ’s Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, I wondered why and how Tantric Buddhism came into existence in the first place, and was intrigued by the fact that sound historical records of it’s origins are hard to come by and often disputed. Notably, Powers asserts that “there are no records from the Buddha’s time that suggest he gave teachings resembling developed Vajrayana” (Powers 252), and that they came into existence in India over a millennium after the Buddha passed on.

What I find most interesting about the Vajrayana is that it is not entirely original—it encompasses theories such as the theory of emptiness, from the Madhyamaka school. This seems to be in stark contrast with the stories indicating that the Buddha originally taught the Vajrayana to king Hinayana. I suppose there could be some overlap in teachings, but I also wonder if the Vajrayana came to be through years of practitioners drawing their own interpretation from other original teachings and theories from the respective Madhyamaka and Yogacara schools. That being said, I am not sure I fully understand Tantra and what is required of its practitioners, both throughout history and today.

I am also surprised that most Tibetan scholars view the Tantra teachings as “the supreme of all Buddhist teachings…considered to be the shortest and most effective path to Buddhahood” (Powers 253). In the beginning of the semester, it felt like we emphasized in class how long it took to reach an enlightened state, and to me it seemed as if this long process would purposely only attract the most dutiful, patient, and steadfast of practitioners.

To me, one of the most interesting facets of Tantra was within the fact that practitioners are not expected to view pleasure and desire as something to be avoided, as desires evoke a powerful energy within a person which can be beneficial to the spiritual path. If I were to practice Tantra, I would be comforted by the understanding that daily life is intimately linked with desire, and it would make sense to me to use the energy garnered from feelings of desire toward my own spiritual path. I appreciate the fact that Tantra does not require the suppression of desire, though a distinction is made between a sensual indulgence and desire channeled in a controlled way through meditation. Relatedly, the idea that the human mind contains the seeds of both suffering and of lasting joy resonates deeply with me, meaning that true happiness exists and can be found within the mind (Powers 261).

Ultimately, I have many questions about the historical origins of Tantra Buddhism, and whether or not its origins can be definitively traced back to the stories detailed in the chapter. However, I find many aspects of the practice, specifically the lack of suppression of desire and the location of happiness within the mind to be extremely plausible and relatable. I am prompted to wonder how easily certain aspects of Tantra could be integrated and utilized in a non-practitioner’s daily life—not necessarily to attain Buddhahood, but instead to appreciate life in a deeper and more meaningful way.

Powers, John. “9. Tantra.” Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, N.Y., USA: Snow Lion Publications, 1995.

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How to Stay Relevant for 2,500 Years

During our class debate on the theories of the two truths and two natures by both Tsong Khapa and Go Rampa, there were multiple points and questions about consciousness and karma. Attempting to grapple with both theories and their effect on Buddhist teachings it became clear that for Tsong Khapa, the Buddha was able to teach because he maintained the existence of the conventional truth, which allowed him to reach out and connect with his followers through his teachings. But for Go Rampa the conventional truth does not existence, but rather it is the collection of good karma the Buddha had garnered throughout his life that allows him to teach without generating new karma. While I find his concept to be more difficult to understand, Go Rampa’s “Zombie Buddha” provides an interesting explanation. However, it is Tsong Khapa’s concept that allows the religion to do much more than simply teach, it allows it to grow and it allows it stay relevant; a necessary ability that the religion has been using for thousands of years.

To teach anything transformative like religion, it is essential to connect to the student or practitioner. As a religion thousands of years old, Buddhism has grown with the times. It has adapted and assumed new interpretations, built new and distinct religious schools, all through a constant and genuine interaction with the conceptual world. The old scripts show that the Buddha was an interactive teacher. When a student would question a certain theory or reveal that they needed more time to understand a concept, the Buddha would tailor his teachings for them. We can see this with the development of the Buddha’s evolutionary teaching style, as explained by our professor with the example of elementary versus high-school level science class material. Buddha interacted with the conventional truth; with the physical world around him, especially with the minds of his student to connect to them. He was an active teacher; he did not simply leave scripts or texts to be interpreted without any guidance or assistance after his death. Instead he was an active participant in the educational process within the “conceptual” world.

Buddhism has continued to employ this type of active teaching style and religious development long after the Buddha’s death. Generations after generations of Buddhist theorists and practitioners have found ways to re-associate with the Buddhist texts and find their relevance for the world today. Some examples of such movements come from as recent a time as the 1960s. An example called Engaged Buddhism, which applied traditional Buddhist practices to the challenges of the globalized world today such as war, famine and inequality. Pioneered by the monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, he re-imagined the Buddhist texts within this engaged framework to expand the religions’ reach to other cultures and countries that had very little previous experience with the religion. Under Tsong Khapa’s concept of the two noble truths this religious adaptability for current times and challenges is possible and to deny the essentiality of the conceptual world is to let the religious teachings die off out of irrelevance.

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Do you want to be a Buddha?

Both Gorampa and Mipam’s understanding of the two truths conclude with the zombie Buddha. Arguing that Tsongkhapa is a nihilist because he and his followers are grasping at the idea of nonexistence, Gorampa claims that when someone is enlightened they only see the ultimate truth and do not see the conventional at all. Mipam, though trying to reinstate a middle way between the two philosophers, also comes to the conclusion that an wakened being can only see through the ultimate. How could someone function if they were not seeing the conventional truth in any way? As we discussed in class, this awakened being is termed – “zombie Buddha.” The idea is that the Buddha no longer has any thoughts of their own, however, the zombie Buddha still functions because their past Karma is propelling them forward. I still have questions about the rational behind the zombie Buddha, for example – even if the awakened being does not create more karma, who is to say that all of their previous karma would run out before they died? But, for the purposes of this short essay, I do not want to delve into the theory itself but rather look at what it means for the practitioner if the Buddha is a zombie. If being enlightened is being a zombie buddha, do you want to be a Buddha still?

Personally… not really. It could be said that this is the only way not to suffer, but if this is the cost for not suffering, is it worth it? And if I don’t want to reach enlightenment does this effect how I should relate to Buddhism? On one hand, to become enlightened is incredibly difficult and as we have spoke about in class, is said to take many eons. And, although we have just started to talk about tantric practices which are said to make it possible to reach enlightenment in only one life time, it is still incredibly difficult and dangerous. Consequently, Im willing to say that reaching enlightenment for me, at least in this life, is not going to happen. And if this is the case, what does it matter what enlightenment truly feels like? On the other hand, Buddhist doctrine is focused on the attainment of enlightenment, and if I don’t want this goal, than what does this say about the other doctrine? 

Much of what Buddhism tells us to do such as cultivating love and kindness and meditation has been shown to increase peoples happiness and physical well being. These aspects have become very popular in the West, especially with the mindfulness moment. While I think it is clear that we should be careful how these aspects of Buddhism are appropriated, if we don’t believe in enlightenment because we don’t want it or think its not possible, to what end should we be employing Buddhist technologies and how should we be relating to Buddhism as a whole? 

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Zombie Buddha 4evah

What compels me about the idea of Zombie Buddha is the very undesirability of that state. If we, in our attachment-ridden samsaric condition—bogged down with karma and the perception of conventional reality—were able to see Buddhahood as desirable, I would doubt its truth. Just as emptiness is at first difficult to conceive of, and the idea of no-self can be deeply troubling, Buddhahood should seem strange to us. What we can understand through conventional reality is necessarily flawed because of the very nature of our dualistic perception; so perhaps what is true should actually never make sense right off the bat. Therefore, Zombie Buddha is fascinating to me.

As a concept, Zombie Buddha is beautifully, fundamentally necessary because of the very nature of karma—once the Buddha reaches enlightenment he cannot collect more karma, because karma is what tethers sentient beings to samsara. Since all cognition generates karma, the Buddha necessarily cannot have thoughts after becoming the Buddha. If he were, he would still be bound by samsara, and therefore not enlightened. But the question is: how did he walk around and give teachings with no thoughts? Even though the necessary lack of karma seems to leave the idea of Zombie Buddha philosophically sound, when we step back to examine the life of the Buddha post-awakening it suddenly seems ridiculous again. As Yoshi pointed out in class, in stories of the Buddha’s awakening it is said that he thinks about how he should communicate the ultimate truth, considering not communicating it at all. These thoughts at least, let alone all of the thoughts and actions that accompany his teachings, would seemingly be karmically entrenched.

The idea of the Buddha’s pre-awakening karma spinning itself out like a potter’s wheel throughout the remainder of his lifetime addresses some of these concerns, but still leaves me with a few questions. For instance: usually, it seems that in the experiences of sentient beings, karma begets more karma, and that is precisely why getting out of samsara is so difficult. Since the winding-down karma of the Buddha that enables him to give teachings still has vast and formative karmic effects on the world and the sentient beings in it, how would it not have any karmic effect on him? By the nature of the interdependence of sentient beings, the fact that the karma of the Buddha is acting on others would seems to necessitate some kind of karmic reflection back on him as well. And yet this would mean he would remain stuck in samsara. So what are the terms of his karmic immunity?

I suppose what may be happening is that the Buddha himself actually no longer exists after awakening, and in fact all that is left are the reverberations of his karma, playing themselves out independent of the sentient being that caused them. But here I think I might be straying into the realm of the questions the Buddha said not to ask—maybe it’s best to let Zombie Buddha lie and focus on yanking out that poison arrow.

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